By Noah Kenny
Those Pennsylvania winters were bitter. This one felt especially hard. I had graduated college, but couldn’t keep a job. I got fired a couple times for reasons that settled as a lack of motivation. I was no good in an office. I had different ideas. My mom and I didn’t understand each other; talking to her was like explaining colors to a blind man.
It was my twenty-third birthday. I’d get a break from the future talk. Mom bought a chocolate cake from the bakery. We used to go there after Sunday school when I was little. I’d press my hands against the glass partition and pick my favorite cookies and éclairs. We understood each other when it came to cookies and éclairs. I performed well in school, and my mother hoped I would become a rabbi. She liked to run her hands through my blonde hair and ask me what Rabbi Weinstein taught me that week.
It was just me and her. That’s the way it was most times. My grandmother came around a lot, but she got dementia pretty bad the last few years. She died over the summer. It’s been a hard winter. My mother unboxed the chocolate cake with a big smile. She knew how much I loved it—I really did. I went to the fridge and brought out a gallon of milk.
She put the cake on the dinner table. “I hope it’s still as good.”
The icing glistened, and I felt my mouth begin to water. I hadn’t eaten a cake from Amoretti’s since those days after Sunday school. “Oh, yeah. It looks great,” I said as I eyed it. “You really don’t have to sing to me.”
“Oh, come on,” she said, “you’re still my baby. I don’t care how old you are.”
“Ah, come on, Ma. I’m hungry.”
She went to the cabinets in search of candles. They weren’t there. We had some holy candles for Hanukkah and Yahrzeit Memorial candles for my grandmother, but nothing for birthdays. She continued to open and close the cabinets repeatedly as I eyed the cake. “I swear I bought candles today. Honey, do you see the candles?”
“No. It’s okay. We really don’t need them.” I was hungry, and the candles didn’t mean much to me; I was older, with or without them. I picked at my paper plate and tapped my foot.
“I swear…I swear I bought a pack of candles today. They’re green.” She lumbered around the kitchen, eyes focused like a dog on a fly. “Do you see anything?” she asked without looking at me. Sweat accumulated on her forehead and cheeks. She moved quickly and patted the old grocery bags on the kitchen counter. Nothing. “I swear I bought them. You don’t think I threw them out, do you?” She moved heavily to the trash can. She began digging through old paper plates and coffee grinds.
“Ma, I don’t think you threw them away. I don’t think you’d do that,” I said. I didn’t understand the big deal. They were just candles, and the cake looked good.
The sweat began dripping. It puddled between her collarbones and dampened her shirt. She suddenly turned away from the trash, eyes still mad. “What’s wrong with me?” she said. “What’s wrong with me?” She opened the pantry door and bent down. She found old Popsicle sticks and my Sunday school art projects, but no candles. “What did I do?”
Worried, I began looking. I followed her steps. They weren’t on the counter; they weren’t in the bags; nothing in the trash. I went to the pantry. She was still bent down and sifting through all the old beans and canned tomatoes. I put my hand on her back. It was very damp. “Ma, it’s okay.”
She turned quickly. Her face was bright red, and I flinched before helping her up. She felt weak. “What’s wrong with me?” she asked, looking me in the eyes. I didn’t want to hear that. I hated it when she asked that.
“Nothing…” I didn’t know what else to say. “It’s candles. It’s only candles.”
“But I got them. Green candles. Green candles.” She broke away and went to the grocery bags again. They still weren’t there. They still weren’t in the trash either.
I found an old pack of candles in the battery drawer. “Mom, how about these?” I asked as I held the pack to her.
She darted over and examined the pack before taking them. They weren’t my favorite color, but they’d do. Her face was steaming, her eyes red. It was hard not knowing what to say. She opened the pack and submerged a few candles in the chocolate cake. It still looked good.
I lit the candles.
“Okay,” she said. “Make a wish, honey.”
I asked her to sing to me.
She did. Then I blew out the candles.